Apple of Someone’s Eye
Technology has stamped itself as the new frontier for civil liberties where the battle for tomorrow’s consumer will be fought on a trust score. Barely months after one of the world’s most valuable companies, Apple, refused to cooperate with the world’s most powerful government to hack a phone, Microsoft is taking on the United States Justice Department.
It’s suing them over a gag order that restricts the firm from notifying customers when the state seeks access to client information. Microsoft, like Apple, is preparing for the new economy where accountability, transparency and reputation will be the basis of transactions, not sheer size.
Microsoft has been in a privacy tempest previously. The Edward Snowden whistle-blowing episode alleged that the National Security Agency (NSA) snooped on Microsoft’s customer information overcoming encryption and access storage under the so-called Prism programme.
To be fair, other Silicon Valley giants were also part of the undeclared forced collaboration. The names included Facebook, Yahoo and Skype. At the time, most firms said they cooperated only on data about specific clients, sought by the government through a judicial order.
Three years later, advancing technology means more individuals will start sharing lots of their data with big firms, which will store and redeploy them to provide greater ease of living and connectivity. For these new services, privacy is everything.
In a future that Microsoft and others are building, all devices will talk to each other, in what is called the Inter- net of Things (IoT), people will be communicating as holograms, and machines will know far more about us than we can fathom.
A recent research paper by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada says, “The Internet of Things involves the tracking of a device, the motivation is to understand the behaviour of the individual behind the device. Indeed, value is derived from the rich information about the individual, their activities, their movements, and their preferences. When inferences are made about the owner of a device, it raises the question whether it’s the device being tracked or the individual.”
Imagine, then, companies banking on this future after having assured their customer of security and nonshareability of data, having to release that data to governments on the sly. So, when Microsoft starts banging on the doors of a courtroom for redressal, make no mistake. It’s also a fight to stay in business. Violated privacy is a high-profile showstopper on display. When WhatsApp announced that all calls will be encrypted from start to finish, it’s telling users that no one — not even WhatsApp — can hack into those calls. The communication will remain between the sender and the recipient. And even if government agencies were to ask WhatsApp for access, it could feign helplessness. In a simple stroke, one billion users could start seeing the company as a votary of their privacy.
Apple, of course, has already become a poster boy among civil rights campaigners after snubbing US investigators seeking the key to unlock the San Bernardino attackers’ iPhone.
Effectively, the big technology giants are taking the distrust the consumer voiced three years ago and rolling it into gunpowder against government agencies. In doing so, they are telling the consumer: it’s not them at fault.
For decades, telecom companies have shared voice calls with enforcement agencies because it’s a part of their licence agreement. Hardly any have resisted. Technology firms, however, are not dependent on licences from governments. So there is little need to toe the line.
In the connected world, privacy is the big debate. To be fair, investigative agencies have argued the world over that some level of access to electronic communications is required to prevent acts of terror in which innocent lives are lost.
Still, in the absence of some universal guidelines on what constitutes a threat, transgressions are a grey area. As are different rules in different countries. In the US, a court order is needed to snoop on customer data, while in India, a bureaucrat can sign off that process as long as the enforcement agencies prove the need.
In a technology world without borders, there is an urgent need for a universal law that will address privacy issues. It needs the participation of multiple stakeholders ranging from free speech advocates, technology firms, government agencies, to civil society to arrive at some consensus on how we will be regulated, and by whom. Until machines take over, that is.
The writer is founder, Content Pixies
No one can encrypt you, sweetheart